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  • Bronze by GoldenhairMusic as Language in Chamber Music and “Sirens”
  • Patrick Milian (bio)

To approach James Joyce’s Chamber Music properly equipped with the foreknowledge of what the future of his career would hold is to encounter not the cloacal fixation occasionally imposed on the poems,1 but nascent revelations about the nature of Joycean modernist style. First among these is an inventiveness in regard to the semiotics of music in literature. A collection of love poems published in 1907, Chamber Music examines the intersections of music and poetry, investigating the ways in which the written word can take on purely abstract qualities of music—an interest also explicitly pursued in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses. Comparing these early poems with Joyce’s famous, if contentious, fuga per canonem reveals both an evolving use of musical material in his writing and an evolving theory of language as it relates to music. In Chamber Music, Joyce employs sound-based structuring principles that subtly press against the boundaries of strict meter and form in an attempt to elucidate the effects music can have on the process of meaning-making. This challenging, through a poetic shaping, of language’s representational capacities complicates the division between the linguistic sign and that to which it refers. In “Sirens,” however, Joyce is not concerned with simply complicating the system of linguistic signification but rather with eradicating the boundary between word and referent in order to access, through musical language, faculties of pre-discursive and proto-linguistic meaning-making that run contrary to a system of conventionalized signs. The evolution of Joyce’s use of music in his writing demonstrates a troubling of the traditional distinction between meaning and form, in which music consists predominantly of form and language of meaning. At first, Joyce does this by employing and extending poetic and metrical techniques, and later by [End Page 175] completely breaking from conceptions of meaning and form as separate entities as he attempts to devise a musico-linguistic method of creating sense and meaning within prose.

Joyce’s experiments in his early poetry collection and later novel emerged from a history of writers who challenged the understanding of language as a system of signification. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, when he visits the School of Languages in the Academy of Lagado, witnesses three professors in the process of developing a scheme for simplifying the national language: one in which speakers’ words, which are themselves only names for things, can be conveniently replaced with physical objects, “such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on.”2 As in a Saussurean system of signification, these professors recognize the arbitrary and conventional relationship between the concept and its name. The word and its referent are conflated into a Thing containing both name and named thing, a conflation exploited to humorous ends with the image of a man carrying a few implements in his pockets for the sake of casual conversation. Furthering this linguistic system, these professors recognize that a shared agreement on the arbitrary meaning of the symbolic “Goods and Utensils” could result in a “universal Language” (Swift, 176). Swift’s understanding of language and its potentialities was symptomatic of a widespread eighteenth-century interest in the possibility of a “philosophical language,” a language that could function as an antidote to linguistic confusion and, like early understandings of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters, be made up of signs that contained both signifier and signified.3

We can see Joyce taking up this concern of linguistic representation throughout his career-spanning linguistic experiments. While still at University College, he wrote of this complex correlation between words and their referents. His early essay on linguistics, “The Study of Languages,” examines “an innate symmetry” between “ideas [and] their expression” (CW 27). It is difficult to imagine how the author of Ulysses, would adhere to this conception of meaning-making as an innate one-to-one relationship, but, in the same essay, Joyce points to how a speaker, when overtaken by emotion, speaks with a language that “may have more sound than meaning” (CW 29) yet may communicate no less effectively. Almost immediately after describing the inherent...


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pp. 175-205
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